George LaCour wasn’t liking the forecast for the Mississippi River. He already had 1,000 acres about to go under water on his farm in south Louisiana, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was trying to decide whether to open the nearby Morganza Spillway.
Opening the flood control structure would have inundated another 1,000 acres of LaCour’s operation, which, although it was only the first week in January, could have made the 2016 crop year even more challenging for him and his family.
LaCour, the Southern Cotton Ginners Association’s Ginner of the Year for 2016, is no stranger to adversity. Whether it’s Mississippi River flooding, low commodity prices, or the lack of a high-capacity gin in the area where he chooses to grow cotton, he has overcome challenges throughout his career.
While the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers were threatening to cover even more of his acres, LaCour was attending the annual Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans, laughing and visiting with friends and seeking information of use to his operation in 2016.
“I just really enjoy the Beltwide,” says LaCour, one of the founding owners of Tri-Parish Gin, located near Lettsworth, La. “I never miss it if I can help it, because it gives me a chance to visit with friends and learn more about cotton.”
Although he lives and farms in an area in Pointe Coupee Parish that’s not generally considered to be in Louisiana’s cotton belt, he lives and breathes cotton, which is more a part of his heritage than some might realize.
Father was cotton farmer
“At one time, my parish had the biggest cotton acreage in the state,” he says. “My father grew cotton, but they quit growing it in the 1970s, and we went through about 10 years with no cotton in the parish.”
When the 1980s rolled around and soybean prices dropped to $4 a bushel, LaCour and other growers in his area began looking for an alternative. They settled on cotton, in part, because it could stand up to a drought.
“When we got back into cotton, things had changed,” he says. “Everyone had gone from two-row cotton pickers to four-row pickers and module builders. In the 1970s, you picked what you could gin. If it didn’t come off the trailers, it didn’t get loaded. There were a lot of little gins, and you didn’t have to go far with your cotton — ten miles was like a million miles.
“We got back in the cotton growing business because beans were so cheap, and we went through some really dry years when the beans didn’t make anything. But cotton would make a good crop — non-irrigated.”
Getting back into cotton presented other challenges. The few gins that remained in the region were antiquated, and most were capable of ginning only four or five bales an hour.
LaCour and fellow grower Paul Roy talked about building a larger gin for their area, but they knew it would be expensive and would have to involve other growers to finance such an operation.
50-mile trip to gin
“The ginners in Cheneyville, La., said they would gin our cotton when they could get to it,” he says. “That was back when modules were built on pallets. We had to pay to have the gin send module trucks to pick up our cotton and haul it 50 miles.”
At one point, they hauled cotton to Natchitoches, La. — 130 miles, one way. “Cypress Gin was Mr. L.J. Melton’s gin. But it was just too far to haul cotton, especially over the roads we had then.”
There was a gin in Moreauville, which was much closer to Lettsworth, where LaCour’s operation is located. “It was a new gin company,” he says. “Jack Singleton owned it, and he had reopened it. It had been Mr. Coco’s gin for many years. It ginned about five bales an hour.
“That was 1988. We thought we had died and gone to heaven. We weren’t planting a lot of cotton, and we had only two-row cotton pickers. I’d pick three wagons of cotton a day, haul them to the gin, and the gin would empty my three wagons. Life was good.”
LaCour continued using the small gin in 1989, a wet year. “So, we’d still haul our little bit of cotton to Moreauville, all in trailers. My crop in 1989 was really good, and beans were terrible, so a lot of my neighbors decided they were going to plant cotton.”
Big jump in acres
Farmers in Pointe Coupee Parish went from 2,000 acres in 1989 to 10,000 acres in 1990. They had another good crop, and hauled their cotton to the gins in Moreauville and Natchitoches. Cotton was ginned in August, September, October, November, and December, finally finishing at Christmas.
There was another gin they used in Pointe Coupee Parish in 1990, the Marker Gin. “It baled about 4 bales per hour,” LaCour says. “That was the gin where my father ginned his cotton — and it’s still there. All the equipment is there, intact.”
Visiting with two or three of his neighbors on the tailgate of his truck in October of that year, he and the other farmers decided that if they were to continue ginning cotton, they needed to build a new gin, because the one at Moreauville was too small and the trip to Natchitoches too arduous.
“That’s how we got Tri-Parish Gin started,” LaCour says. “Growers in Pointe Coupee and Avoyelles Parish figured they needed a bigger gin. So I started going around asking folks if they wanted to be in the gin business.”
He and his neighbors raised $800,000 and borrowed $1.2 million from Co-Bank, the Bank for Cooperatives, to build a new gin.
Harold Lambert, a crop consultant from Ventress, La., was instrumental in getting the new gin off the ground. A former president of the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants, he consulted for several growers in the area.
“Harold was checking our cotton, and he knew what we needed,” LaCour says. “He had the expertise to know how to write things down the right way, and how to build a budget and a business plan. He helped us figure the number of bales we needed for the gin to break even, and he oversaw the construction. We would have been in the ditch without Harold.”
LaCour traveled the area with Wade Self, talking to other farmers about investing in the gin. He describes Self and Bill White, a transplant to south Louisiana from Missouri, as the three legs of the stool that helped get the gin project going.
“I would tell them, ‘You can put up $5,000 or $50,000, but we need a gin or we can’t grow cotton.’ We were dying financially growing soybeans, and corn had aflatoxin problems. We had been growing corn since 1984. In 1988, beans were $5 a bushel and corn was $2.
“Wade kept me straight all through that process,” LaCour says. “We saw about 40 farmers to get them all involved in the new gin.”
More challenges followed. They ginned their first crop in 1991 after building a gin that would handle 20 bales per hour. They would have preferred more capacity, but that’s all they could afford with the money they had raised.
“Co-Bank told us if we put up 40 percent of the cost of the gin, we wouldn’t have to sign the note,” he says. “So we raised the 40 percent. It took every penny we could raise to finish the gin. We got 12 module builders that Hamp Bass (then president of KBH Corp., now deceased) had to stand for the first year because we didn’t have enough equity to buy them.
“We were trying to do this through Farm Credit Leasing, and Hamp said he would guarantee the first note if we couldn’t make the payment. The bank wouldn’t let us have the money because the gin owned the builders. So, Hamp told Farm Credit he would make the first note. He believed in us.”
Bass was one of a number of industry members who have helped LaCour and the other partners over the years. “I’ve met a lot of good people in the ginning business,” he says. “A lot of them aren’t here today. I wish they could come back so I could talk to them again.”
Another stroke of luck
The Tri-Parish Gin founders had another stroke of luck when they accepted Lambert’s recommendation to obtain a long-term lease on 40 acres of land from the Pointe Coupee Parish Port.
“That lease has been the salvation for us,” LaCour says. “The land is only about a quarter mile from the port. The first cottonseed we ginned in 1991 we sold to the house for $60 a ton because we needed the money, and they would advance it to us.
“After that, we started figuring out what cottonseed values were. In 1992, we loaded our first barges at the port. In fact, that year we shipped some cottonseed to Mexico with Don Pylant. Since then, we’ve sold cottonseed to Garvey Grain, New Zealand, and now we sell to ADM. We can load a barge in a day and put a thousand tons of seed on it. Being on the river has been blind luck.”
In 1992, the person who would eventually become the long-term manager for the gin — Peggy Greziffi — came to work as a secretary. “After we went through about four managers, the board was meeting one night, and someone said ‘You know what, we have the best manager in the office now. She’s telling everyone what to do, and she needs to be the manager.’
“In 1994, we made her the manager, and after Ms. Peggy took over, all the stress went out of owning a cotton gin. I didn’t have to go to the gin every night. I didn’t have to worry about something going wrong. We knew Ms. Peggy would take care of everything.”
Outstanding safety record
One of the things he’s most proud of during Ms. Peggy’s tenure is the gin’s safety record. “We’ve gone from the bottom rung to the top rung on the safety ladder,” he says. “Larry Davis (retired safety director for the SCGA) made safety fun for the crew, but at the same time he helped them understand why it’s so important.”
He credits a number of individuals with helping him become more involved in the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, which he has served as president, and in other organizations in the cotton industry.
“Folks like Billy Guthrie, Bobby Todd, and Mr. Johnny Carroll helped me get involved with the Louisiana Cotton Producers Association,” says LaCour, who recently agreed to serve on the organization’s board again.
“I’ve met so many great people in this industry,” he says. “I remember Dick Bransford (a Southern Cotton Ginners Association board member, also deceased), calling to tell us there was ice on the road, and he would be late for the board meeting — but he would be there. And so many others, like Buddy Cochran and James Killebrew in Mississippi, all good friends and great people.
“Buddy Tanner; Jack Maxwell; Sledge Taylor (current chairman of the National Cotton Council), who I’ve known for 30 years; Holt Shoaf (current president of the SCGA), Allen Helms, and Larry McClendon. I always admired Lee Todd (former executive director of the SCGA), and I was on the board when we hired Tim Price (current SCGA executive director).”
Many of these fellow ginners and cotton industry members are like family members, he says. “It’s like a farmer and his gin — it’s part of the family. Our growers worry about their gin; they worry about it making it. Everybody is worried about making a living, and everyone is concerned about whether the gin is going to survive.”
The 2015 cotton season was like a roller coaster for farmers in south Louisiana, says LaCour. “We went from too wet to too dry, and how we got the crop we got planted is a true testament to modern equipment and how fast we can move, because we had very few days where we could really plant.
“We planted our cotton in one week. We planted cotton and fertilized it right behind the planter. We did that partially because we needed to plant some beans, and we didn’t know what the weather would be like since it had already been so wet.
“We had cotton we sprayed one time with a postemerge herbicide. Then we were laying it by, and it started raining and didn’t stop for three weeks. I’m talking about 3 inches to 5 inches in a single rain.”
All in all, 2015 was a difficult year, he says. “But that’s cotton farming. Cotton ginning is another matter. A cotton farmer can farm anything — but a cotton gin can only gin cotton.”
Still, it sure beats the alternative, says LaCour. “I believe the reason cotton has held on as well as it has in the lower part of the Mississippi Delta is that we know what it’s like not to have a gin. One of my biggest worries is that cotton will come back, and we won’t have the infrastructure to support it. When you’ve been where we are, you know how important that is.”